Smartphones are the focus of most people's digital lives these days, and are likely to remain so until computing becomes truly 'ambient' -- probably involving some seamless combination of wearables (particularly augmented reality [AR] goggles), IoT devices, cloud services and artificial intelligence (AI).
As 2017 draws to a close, it's a good time to take stock of the current state of the smartphone market by examining the vital statistics of leading vendors' flagship handsets.
Apple's iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X, Samsung's Galaxy S8/S8+ and Galaxy Note 8, Google's Pixel 2 and 2 XL and Huawei's Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro show the general direction in which top-end smartphones are heading: powerful, attractive (and expensive) handsets whose user experiences increasingly leverage AI and AR, integrated with an ecosystem of add-on devices and services in various sectors including gaming, AR and VR, smart home, healthcare, shopping and office productivity.
Following last year's well-publicised Galaxy Note 7 debacle and strong fourth-quarter performance from Apple, Samsung briefly ceded first place to its main rival in the Q4 2016 smartphone market. However, the Korean company swiftly returned to the number-one spot in 2017 (see chart). Apple's new iPhones face stiff competition from Samsung, Huawei and other top-five vendors, and from several manufacturers in the 'Others' category -- including Google, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus and Sony -- that also offer premium smartphones.
"With an overabundance of high-end flagships launching in the coming weeks, the fourth quarter will be extremely competitive as vendors will fight it out to win over holiday shoppers," said Anthony Scarsella, research manager with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, when the Q3 figures were released. "Although these premium flagships will capture all the hype while driving up the average selling price in the quarter, we still believe a clear majority of shipments will come from more affordable models across many markets. IDC previously forecast the fourth quarter to grow at less than 1% year over year as initial supply constraints surrounding the iPhone X and higher than normal prices on many flagships could lead to consumers playing the waiting game until prices come down after the holidays or opt for a more affordable device."
Here's how the flagship smartphone market looks at the beginning of December, presented as far as possible in graphical form. (Note: we'll update this article as new handsets from LG and any other leading vendors are released.)
Screen size -- measured in inches across the diagonal -- is a smartphone's defining design characteristic, and the range on offer from leading vendors is now very wide. BlackBerry's 4.5-inch keyboard-equipped KEYone is the smallest, while Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 currently leads the field at 6.3 inches, with 13 out of the 26 handsets covered here falling between 5.5 and 6 inches. Display technologies are split between IPS LCD (Apple, BlackBerry, Huawei, HTC, LG [G6], Sony) and various species of OLED (Apple [iPhone X], Google, HP, Huawei [Mate 10 Pro], LG [V30], Motorola, OnePlus and Samsung).
Recent developments in smartphone displays include curved minimal-bezel screens with on-screen home buttons, 18:9 aspect ratio, Gorilla Glass 5 screen protection and -- in the HTC U Ultra -- a small secondary screen for notifications and other useful information (an idea recently dropped by LG when updating the V20 to the V30). Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 is the only handset covered here that offers a stylus (the S-Pen). Apple's 2017 iPhones add True Tone technology (first seen in the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro) that automatically adjusts colour temperature and intensity to the ambient light, while the iPhone X made more space for the screen by removing the home button (and Touch ID) altogether.
The other key statistic here is pixel density, measured as pixels per inch (ppi), which factors in the display resolution. The graph below shows that Samsung (Galaxy S8) and LG (G6) lead the mainstream field with pixel densities of 567 and 564ppi respectively. The outlier is Sony's 5.5-inch Xperia XZ Premium, which offers a maximum 4K resolution of 3,840 by 2,160 for a massive 807ppi. This looks extremely impressive, but note that, for much of the time, the Xperia XZ Premium works at 1,080p resolution to save battery life, resulting in a much more mundane 403.5ppi.
Not everyone is comfortable with a large-screen handset, but if you want a leading-edge device, that's increasingly what you're being offered. If you're happy with a large screen (>5.5in.) and also want high pixel density (>500ppi), you should be looking at Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy S8+, Google's Pixel 2 XL, LG's G6 and V30 and, if you're happy to run Windows 10 Mobile, the HP Elite x3 (although this product has recently been discontinued). If your hands are on the small side, the 5.3-inch Nokia 8 offers a good combination of moderate screen size and high resolution (554ppi).
Another key smartphone design metric is the screen-to-body ratio, which measures how much of a handset's fascia is occupied by screen compared to non-display elements like bezels, camera lenses and control buttons.
If low screen/body ratios are 'old-fashioned', then Apple's 2016 iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were showing their age at 65.5 percent and 67.5 percent respectively -- and their 8 and 8 Plus successors have done nothing to change that. Apart from BlackBerry's KEYone, only four other handsets have sub-70 percent ratios: Google Pixel 2, HTC U Ultra, Nokia 8 and Sony Xperia XZ Premium. The 4.5-inch KEYone is an outlier at 55.9 percent because, of course, it has a hardware keyboard, which decreases the screen-to-body ratio (and also increases the thickness compared to touchscreen-only handsets -- see below).
At the other end of the scale, Samsung's Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8 handsets, with their curved Infinity Display screens and on-screen home buttons, lead the field with screen/body ratios of 83-84 percent. LG's V30 and Apple's iPhone X are joined by the new Huawei Mate 10 and 10 Pro in the flagship club with screen/body ratios over 80 percent. Note that Google's best effort at a minimal-bezel design, the 6-inch Pixel 2 XL, only comes in at 76.7 percent. Meanwhile, the new OnePlus 5T has boosted its screen-to-body ratio to 79.6 percent (up from 72.9% in the OnePlus 5) by moving its fingerprint reader to the back and minimising the below-screen bezel.
Smartphone vendors often make much of the slimness of their devices, and it's clear from the chart below that Huawei is particularly keen on this design feature -- at least in its P-series and Honor handsets. Conversely, BlackBerry and Samsung deliver much thicker smartphones, while Google's latest Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL have both slimmed down from 8.5mm thick in their previous incarnations:
Motorola's modular Moto Z2 Force, at 6.1mm with no Mods fitted, is the thinnest handset here. There are trade-offs though: the camera lens housing protrudes from the rear, and the device's body is too thin to accommodate a 3.5mm headset jack. Apple, Google and Huawei (on the Mate 10 Pro) have also dispensed with the traditional headphone jack as part of a move towards fewer ports (making it easier to protect against dust and water ingress -- see below) and greater emphasis on wireless connections.
With the increasing use of glass on both the front and back of premium handsets (to accommodate wireless charging), most people immediately put their expensive and shiny new handset in a protective case, which renders the quest for extreme slimness somewhat pointless.
As you'd expect, there's a clear relationship between a smartphone's physical volume and its weight, although the variation around the trendline is interesting.
For example, handsets such as the (HTC-designed) Google Pixel 2, BlackBerry Motion and HTC U Ultra -- are relatively light for their volume, suggesting that there's plenty of room for components inside the case. Another handset that's below the weight/volume trendline is Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 -- evidence, perhaps, of design changes following the Note 7 debacle (especially as the Note 8 also packs a smaller-capacity 3,300mAh battery than its ill-fated predecessor, which ran on a 3500mAh unit). Conversely, it's noteworthy how Apple's iPhone 8 Plus is particularly heavy (at 202g) for its volume, that the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are slightly bulkier and heavier than their predecessors, and that the 5.8-inch iPhone X is considerably lighter and more compact than Samsung's 6.3-inch Galaxy Note 8.
The latest smartphone design feature is squeezable sides that can launch any app (HTC U11+) or the Google Assistant (Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL). Whether this catches on more widely remains to be seen. The useful Alert Slider on the OnePlus 5T (and its predecessors) is a currently unique feature that other handset makers might consider adopting.
Another key smartphone design factor is resistance to the ingress of foreign matter, as commonly indicated by a two-digit IP rating: the first number describes dust resistance on a 1-6 scale, while the second describes water resistance on a 1-8 scale. The highest rating among the flagship handsets covered here is IP68, where '6' indicates that the device is 'dust tight' and '8' signifies that it can withstand immersion in water (usually at least 30 minutes to depth of at least 1m).
An IP rating of 5 for dust means the device is merely 'dust protected', while 7 for water means it can withstand immersion in up to 1m for 30 minutes and 4 means it can resist 'splashing water' for at least 10 minutes.
IP ratings are not available for the BlackBerry KEYone, Huawei Mate 10, P-series and Honor handsets, HTC U Ultra, Motorola Moto Z2 Force (although it does claim a 'water repellent nano-coating') and OnePlus 5T. However, two of the flagship smartphones -- the LG V30 and HP Elite X3 -- also boast a military-grade MIL-STD 810G ruggedness certification.
Somewhat surprisingly, Apple's 2017 iPhones did not bump up their IP ratings from IP67 to IP68, to match Samsung's Galaxy S8/8+/Note 8. But, as expected, Google boosted the IP ratings for its new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, from IP53 in the previous generation to IP67 -- a move no doubt made easier by the abandonment of a 3.5mm headphone jack in favour of USB-only connectivity (although an adapter is provided in the box). Although Huawei's new Mate 10 Pro has an IP67 rating, no such accolade is awarded to its Mate 10 sibling (which, perhaps significantly, has a 3.5mm headphone jack). Unlike its KEYone stablemate, the touchscreen-only BlackBerry Motion has an IP67 rating.
Dust resistance and waterproofing to at least IP67 is now becoming the 'standard' for flagship smartphones, leaving the Nokia 8 out on a limb at IP54 and unrated devices missing a key feature.
A flagship smartphone should do its job -- launching, running and switching between apps, and displaying on-screen content -- quickly and smoothly, without any delays or glitches that would mar the user experience. It shouldn't become uncomfortably hot in operation either -- or, of course, burst into flames.
Chipsets from four main vendors power the handsets covered here:
Here's how these platforms shape up in terms of processor and graphics performance, as measured by the Primate Labs' multi-core Geekbench 4 (Gb4) and Futuremark's 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited (ISU) benchmarks respectively:
Until Apple's September 2017 iPhone launch, the top-performing chipset -- on these measures at any rate -- was the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, with Gb4 and ISU scores of up to 6700 and 41000 respectively. Note that the Exynos 8895 versions of the Samsung S8, S8+ and Note 8 deliver better CPU results but weaker GPU performance.
Apple's A10 Fusion-powered iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were strong performers, with scores of around 5400 (Gb4) and 37000 (ISU), but the new A11 Bionic-powered iPhones have reshaped the smartphone performance landscape. At the 2017 launch, Apple claimed that the A11 Bionic's two performance CPU cores are 25 percent faster than the A10, while its four high-efficiency cores are 70 percent faster. Apple's 2nd-generation performance controller is reportedly 70 percent faster for multithreaded workloads, while the A11's GPU is 30 percent faster and delivers A10-level performance at half the power, according to Apple. Benchmarks for the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X show the A11 Bionic delivering impressive scores of around 10,000 on Geekbench 4 (multi-core) and 64,000 on 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited.
The Kirin 960-powered handsets from Huawei and Honor cluster around the 6000 (Gb4)/27000 (ISU) mark, with benchmarks for the Huawei Mate 10 and 10 Pro, which run the new AI-optimised Kirin 970 chipset, showing a modest improvement. The 10nm Kirin 970 includes an 8-core CPU and a 12-core GPU, and also features a dedicated Neural Processing Unit (NPU) that's mainly used for image recognition.
LG's Snapdragon 821-powered G6 is now well behind the 2017 curve, and will be updated before long. Very much in last place in this company are BlackBerry's KEYone and Motion, which are both powered by Qualcomm's mid-range 8-core Snapdragon 625 SoC.
When it comes to memory, the clear leader of the pack is the OnePlus 5T, which offers 8GB or 6GB of RAM. Next come seven flagship handsets with a maximum of 6GB, all of which bar the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 also have a 4GB variant. The most common RAM complement is 4GB, which is the only choice with 12 handsets and the maximum for BlackBerry's KEYone (which also comes with 3GB).
Apple has always fitted less RAM in its iPhones than the Android competition, and that hasn't changed with its 2017 handsets: the iPhone X and 8 Plus have 3GB (like the iPhone 7 Plus), while the iPhone 8 has just 2GB (like the iPhone 7).
As far as internal storage is concerned, Apple's 2017 iPhones stand out with their maximum complement of 256GB -- a feature that betrays the company's disdain for external storage expansion via a MicroSD card slot. Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 also offers a maximum of 256GB (in some territories), but has a MicroSD card slot too, making it the top choice for the data-hungry.
Google's Pixel 2 handsets, Huawei's Mate 10 Pro and the OnePlus 5T also lack MicroSD expansion and, like the previous-generation iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, provide up to 128GB of internal storage.
The most common maximum internal storage complement is 128GB, which is offered by 13 of the 26 smartphones covered here. BlackBerry's recent Motion handset is an outlier, offering just 32GB of storage.
Cameras have become a key battleground for smartphone makers, and several approaches are currently on view among the flagship population. Although it wasn't the first to do so, Apple kick-started a trend last year by offering dual rear cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus: a primary 12-megapixel (MP) camera with an f/1.8 wide-angle lens and optical image stabilisation (OIS), and a secondary camera with an f/2.8 telephoto lens with 2x optical zoom but no OIS.
As well as adding telephoto capability, Apple's dual-camera system allowed depth information to be calculated, enabling features like bokeh -- sharp foreground and blurred background -- to be supported that were previously the province of expensive digital SLR cameras with high-end optics.
Apple's 2017 dual-camera phones, the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, remain at 12MP but the sensors are bigger, faster and deliver better low-light performance, according to Apple. The iPhone 8 Plus has the same basic lens specs as the 7 Plus (f/1.8 wa + OIS, f/2.8 tele), while the iPhone X has an f/2.4 aperture on the telephoto lens and implements OIS on both cameras. Apple also takes advantage of A11 Bionic chip's machine-learning optimisation and custom ISP to deliver a (beta) portrait-mode feature called Portrait Lighting: here, depth sensing and facial mapping are combined to deliver real-time analysis of the light on a subject's face and provide alternative lighting schemes -- either pre- or post-capture.
Huawei, LG, Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus and Samsung (on the Galaxy Note 8) also deploy dual rear camera systems, with various twists.
Huawei's Leica-branded camera system pairs 12MP RGB and 20MP monochrome sensors with 27mm f/1.6 lenses in the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro (f/1.8 in the P10 Plus and f/2.2 in the P10), supporting OIS on the primary colour camera. As well as enabling true monochrome shooting and adding detail to blended RGB/mono shots, the 20MP secondary camera supplies depth information for bokeh-style images. The Honor 8 Pro has a similar (non-Leica-branded) system, but the secondary mono camera is 12MP rather than 20MP and there's no support for OIS. Apart from the wider-aperture lens, the main innovation in the new Mate 10/10 Pro camera system is the Kirin 970 chipset's Neural Processing Unit (NPU), which performs real-time object recognition in order to fine-tune image settings.
LG uses two 13MP sensors on the G6, one coupled with an f/1.8 autofocus lens with OIS and the other with an f/2.4 wide-angle lens lacking both OIS and autofocus. The LG V30 takes a similar approach, but uses a 16MP primary sensor with an f/1.6 lens (with AF and OIS) and a 13MP secondary sensor with an f/1.9 lens (no AF or OIS).
Both Motorola and Nokia take the Huawei approach, with colour and monochrome cameras: the Nokia 8's Zeiss-branded system supports OIS on the colour camera, but the Moto Z2 Force does not offer OIS on either.
With the Galaxy Note 8, Samsung goes for the wide-angle/telephoto dual camera design, with two 12MP cameras, both with OIS. Samsung also introduces a couple of neat dual-camera features: Live Focus lets you adjust the bokeh effect pre- and post-capture, while Dual Capture simultaneously captures photos from both the wide-angle and telephoto cameras.
OnePlus tweaked its dual-camera setup with the new 5T model, offering 16MP primary and 20Mp secondary cameras, both with f/1.7 lenses; its OnePlus 5 predecessor had a wide-angle/telephoto arrangement. The main aim, according to OnePlus, was to improve low-light performance.
Single rear cameras are an increasing rarity among the flagship population, but are headed (in resolution terms) by Sony and HP, with 19MP and 16MP units in the Xperia XZ Premium and Elite x3 respectively.
Google is the leading exponent of the single rear camera, with its 2016 Pixel and Pixel XL handsets receiving excellent reviews. The rear cameras on the new Pixel 2 and 2 XL have improved further -- gaining a best-in-class score of 98 from DxOMark, for example. Key to this camera performance is a 12.2MP sensor with 'dual pixel phase detection' that creates a depth map with information from the left and right sides of each pixel. Combined with machine-learning algorithms that can distinguish subjects, such as faces, from the background, this allows a single camera to deliver bokeh effects that rival or surpass those from two-camera designs.
The fashion for 'selfies' and authentication via face recognition means that front-facing cameras, once something of an afterthought with a nod to video calls, have seen significant recent evolution.
Samsung, for example, offers both face recognition and iris scanning on its Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8 handsets, as well as a capable 8MP camera, while the Nokia 8's Dual Sight mode lets you take pictures with the front and rear camera simultaneously (a.k.a. 'bothies'). Apple more than matched Samsung's functionality with the front-facing TrueDepth camera system and Face ID on the new iPhone X:
To analyse your physiognomy, the flood illuminator detects your face, the infrared camera takes an IR image, and the dot projector places than 30,000 IR dots on your face. These data are fed into a neural network (in the A11 Bionic chip) to create a mathematical model of your face, which is then checked against the stored model on the handset -- all in real time. The True Depth camera also enables portrait-mode selfies with Portrait Lighting, and animated emoji called 'Animoji'.
Not to be outdone, Google's new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL can also take bokeh-style selfies, thanks to the use of face-identifying ML algorithms. The front camera's 8MP sensor does not create a depth map like its 12.2MP counterpart on the rear, however.
Here are the front camera megapixel counts for the 26 handsets under consideration, 14 of which are 8MP units:
Video capture is becoming an increasingly important smartphone camera feature -- witness the fact that all bar one of the handsets covered here can record 4K (2160p) video with at least a frame rate of 30fps. The exception is HP's Elite x3, which doesn't support 4K video capture at any frame rate. Apple's new iPhones recently upped the ante by supporting 4K video at 60fps, which will doubtless kick off another round of feature catch-up.
Slow-motion video is another popular feature, and Sony's Xperia XZ Premium leads the field here, supporting HD (720p) video capture at a startling 'super-slo-mo' 960fps. The current 'standard' for slo-mo video is 720p at 240fps, although Apple has again pushed the boundary by supporting full HD (1080p) video at 240fps in the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X.
As resolutions and frame rates rise, image stabilisation -- optical (OIS) or electronic (EIS) -- becomes ever more important for video recording. It's noticeably absent from Motorola's Moto Z2 Force, for example. Google's new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL currently lead the field by supporting both OIS and EIS on the main (rear) camera (see above).
As flagship smartphones pack in faster processors, more memory, larger and higher-resolution screens, and ever more functions, so the toll on the handset's battery increases. There are multiple trade-offs here: no smartphone user wants to have to recharge during a typical day's usage, but manufacturers cannot simply fit ever higher-capacity batteries into designs that need to be as lightweight and elegant as possible in order to keep buyers interested. Get it wrong and a vendor can have a Galaxy Note 7-style debacle on its hands.
The maximum capacity for smartphone batteries is currently around 4,000mAh, while 14 of the 26 handsets charted here have battery capacities between 3,000 and 4,000mAh.
Note that the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have slightly lower-capacity batteries than their 7 and 7 Plus predecessors, despite offering the same claimed battery life -- testament to the increased power efficiency of the new A11 Bionic chipset. The iPhone X's battery, as confirmed by teardown analysis, is a dual-cell 2,716mAh unit -- slightly larger than the iPhone 8 Plus (2,675mAh), but smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus (2,900mAh).
A bigger battery obviously means longer battery life, as the chart below clearly shows. But given that design and safety constraints preclude the shoehorning of big batteries into tight-fitting cases, manufacturers also need to make it as convenient as possible for users -- especially 'power' users who subject their devices to heavy workloads -- to recharge their handsets.
Following LG's decision to drop the removable battery when updating the V20 to the V30, this feature is now absent from all of the top-end smartphones covered here. Fast charging is supported on all but the now-outdated iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, while wireless charging is available on Apple's new iPhones (8, 8 Plus and X), HP's Elite x3, the LG G6 and V30, and Samsung's Galaxy S8, S8+ and Note 8. Google's new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL handsets and Huawei's Mate 10 and 10 Pro are notable absentees from the latter list.
High-end smartphones are never going to be cheap, but Apple's newly launched iPhone X has broken new ground -- the combination of Apple's historically high margins and a significant amount of new technology have seen to that. The entry-level 64GB iPhone X configuration costs $999, and if you must have the top-end 256GB model, be prepared to part with a princely $1,149 (and the same figure in UK pounds).
That's a record for a mainstream flagship handset, although you can spend even sillier money (over $10,000) on specialist secure/luxury devices like Sirin Labs' Solarin if you really want to (although, as it turned out, few did). The limited-edition Porsche Design version of Huawei's Mate 10 Pro is worth a mention here: for €1,395 ($1,650) you get a fancy black livery, a customised UI and 256GB rather than 128GB of internal storage.
Here are the list prices in US dollars for most of the premium handsets covered in this feature:
Apart from the escalating prices of the market leaders' flagship handsets, the most notable feature of this chart is the vendor propping it up: OnePlus, whose recent 5T handset, if you peruse the preceding graphs, clearly offers superb value for money.
Recent launches from Samsung, Apple, Google and Huawei have highlighted the increasing importance of artificial intelligence and augmented reality in high-end smartphones, with the underlying chipsets and developer resources evolving appropriately. At least for now, the smartphone will remain the portable hub for your digital life, and the flow of new devices will continue apace.
We aim to keep this roundup updated as new products, specification details and benchmarks appear. The next big launch expected is LG's G7. Check back for updated information on these and other devices.
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